Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 3rd March 2008.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Ministry of Justice, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 3:15 pm, 3rd March 2008

I am sure that the noble and learned Baroness will answer the noble Lord in due course. I am sure, too, that the Committee is grateful to her for bringing forward these important matters, which in one sense could encapsulate the debate that noble Lords have had right from the beginning of these debates, which seems an awful long time ago, when we first discussed these important matters with regard to the youth justice system.

The Government sympathise with the underlying aim of the amendments. I understand why she has tabled the two amendments, so that we might consider more specifically the particular needs of the younger age group, which is why I suspect that she allowed us to have two options in this debate—to anticipate her answer to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway. Although the Government have reservations about the particular amendments in terms of what has gone before, the noble and learned Baroness will know of the work being done across government on the development of a youth crime action plan. I am very hopeful that that action plan can reflect a number of the important points being raised by noble Lords, especially in the way in which young people should be dealt with in the youth justice system.

As the noble Baroness has already said, in effect, her amendments replicate for criminal courts the power under Section 37 of the Children Act 1989 for a court dealing with family proceedings to direct the relevant local authority to undertake an investigation of a child's welfare needs. The results of that investigation must be reported to the family court and include any proposals by the local authority for future action in relation to the child. The Government's difficulty is that we do not consider such a power to be appropriate for the criminal courts. We see the primary purpose of the criminal court to deal with the offender for the offences that they have committed. We had extensive debate on the purpose of sentencing in Clause 9 of this Bill. Certainly, we consider the welfare needs of the child as important. That is why the courts are required to have regard to the welfare of the child under new Section 142A(3)(b) inserted by Clause 9. We do not believe, however, that they should override the courts' duty in respect of administering justice.

The noble Baroness's amendments would provide a power for the court to direct a local authority to undertake an investigation of the child's welfare needs over a period of up to eight weeks. As she said, the criminal proceedings would be adjourned pending its completion. I understand why the noble Baroness is proposing that, but she needs to take into account the practical impact of adding to the court hearing process and potentially undermining the considerable efforts that are being expended on speeding up that process. It is generally accepted that young offenders should be dealt with as quickly as possible, and we have seen a reduction from 142 days to under 71 days in the average time for young offenders to have their cases heard before a court. We would not wish to see that set back.

A power under Section 9 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 places a duty on local authorities to investigate a child's circumstances where they have been notified that they are appearing before a court. In addition, Section 9 provides for the court to request that the local authority undertakes such an investigation and makes it the duty of a local authority to comply with such a request. I understand that that power is rarely used. That might be taken to reflect acceptance by the criminal courts that youth offending teams now serve as a primary means by which information is provided about young people appearing before the court. As we discussed last week, the information is provided by the court by way of a pre-sentence report.

Under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the youth offending team has the responsibility to prepare reports on young offenders, assess their needs and make recommendations to the court on appropriate interventions. There is a serious discussion to be had about the standard of pre-sentence reports. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, took me to task last week when I read a passage from the inspection of youth offending teams. I pointed out that those inspections had raised some problems as well as generally commending the work of youth offending teams. I did so in order to illustrate that there is a proper process of inspection and, following that, efforts to improve the whole process of pre-sentence reports and the work of youth offending teams.

I also suspect that behind the noble Baroness's amendment is a concern about whether one of the impacts of the role of youth offending teams has been the distancing of some children's services from young people drawn into the youth justice system. That point was made by a number of noble Lords last week. I do not agree with some of the suggestions that, in some ways, local authorities are cost shifting. However, I accept that more can always be done to ensure that local authorities, particularly children's services, are as focused on the needs of this group of young people as they are on their general responsibilities.

I emphasise that I am sympathetic to the general tenor of the noble Baroness's remarks. She spoke eloquently about the troubled background of many of these young people and about the positive impact of early intervention. I mentioned that this whole matter is under review. The Children's Plan announced by the Government in December includes the development of the youth crime action plan. This action plan is looking at what happens in other jurisdictions both in the British Isles and in other countries—picking up points that noble Lords made about international comparisons—to see how those systems work and whether they have elements from which we can learn. As part of this work we are considering whether under-15s should be treated differently from the older age group.

I acknowledge the very eloquent way in which the noble Baroness put forward her views but I invite her to withdraw her amendments on the basis that the Government are taking forward this work. I also invite the noble Baroness to discuss this further with the Government.